The upstairs neighbors are not happy. We’re seated in the alleyway behind the back of a yuppie Moroccan café on Fountain Avenue since Cinnamon, Emmy Rossum’s Yorkie, isn’t allowed inside. Calls to the manager have been made. Said manager tells Rossum that the neighbors tattled that she was quote, screaming, unquote. Rossum doesn’t blink. In fact, the whole exchange transports her back to Manhattan, her hometown. A story comes to her, and her voice raises at the exciting bits—no uppity upstairs neighbors will stifle her expression. “This apartment building I grew up in,” she reminisces, “there was this woman who was probably 70 years old. She would always walk around in this pink fluffy robe without shoes, and she would have the robe open, and just be completely naked with her whole saggy body in the lobby getting her mail, and have a complete face of make up and her hair done!”
That was the apartment she shared with her mother on the Upper East Side. It was so small her mother built a plasterboard partition in the one bedroom and gave Rossum the window half. “I would have to walk past her bed and around the partition to get to my room and close this little door.” She brought a boy home once, when she was around 18, and although her mother was very liberal, it was the turning point in which she realized digs of her own were probably best.
Space seems to be a running theme. In this case, the quarters are more or less the same, but the population has quadrupled. On Showtime’s Shameless, Rossum plays Fiona Gallagher, de facto mother hen to her five brothers and sisters, in a tight-quartered house where brothers bunk down and beat each other up during coming-out speeches, and Rossum is coitus interrupted while riding her lover by screams from the kitchen. It’s a good one, this Shameless. Decorated actor William H. Macy portrays the drunk father, Frank, and Joan Cusack his dildo-wielding, agoraphobic pretend wife whose therapy includes virtual reality grocery shopping.
There’s a method to the Shameless madness: it all boils down to family. Rossum explains, “There’s a real sense of a can-do, don’t-take-no-for-an-answer attitude, and they’re [the Gallaghers] really loving and supportive of each other,” despite their destitution. And while Rossum has never struggled to buy a pint of milk, she knows people who have, and she can empathize with that. She can, however, draw real-life comparisons to her own absentee father. At the end of season one, Fiona’s mother drops in unexpectedly after years of matriarchal truancy. Rossum was able to call upon her own relationship with her father to add legitimacy and weight to the latent anger her character feels. “Her mom character abandoned her,” says Rossum, “and that’s definitely what I feel about my father.”
Rossum came from a child actor upbringing, but not of the Disney pop variety. She is a classically trained opera singer, and she admits to being the ultimate mimic. From the age of seven, she was performing with the Metropolitan Children’s Opera, where she jokes that there was a horse on stage that received a higher nightly wage than she did. In 2000, Rossum was cast in Songcatcher, a performance that propelled her to Vanity Fair’s “Ones To Watch” list that year. It came quickly after that. A turn in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River was followed by the blockbusting The Day After Tomorrow, and, in a grand display of her acting chops, she landed the role of Christine in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.
The pressure of such sudden fame had Rossum on the precipice of what could have been a royal Lindsay Lohan unraveling. Instead, she took a year off. The role of Christine led to opportunities in the music world, so she released an album with Geffen Records called Inside Out, which peaked at number 199 on the Billboard 200. “A lot of people wanted me to do a classical album,” she says, “which maybe I should have done in retrospect. It would have made a lot of people happier.”
Nevertheless, Rossum jumped back in the saddle for major motion pictures like Poseidon (2005) and Dragonball: Evolution (2009), which leads us to here, 2011. Rossum never considered television before. She had heard the hours were long, the year filled with months and months of shooting. However, when the part came up, she fought long and hard and now she feels like she “stepped in shit and got the biggest prize in the world with this character.”
Rossum is funny. Her laugh is infectious. She loves to barbeque and go fishing, and she makes margaritas for her friends on game night. There is also the sense with Rossum that she’s just a 25-year-old woman making sense of the world around her. “I used to think a lot about the future and try to shape it,” she says, “but now I just go one day at a time. Different opportunities present themselves every day—you make 300 decisions every hour, like, ‘Am I going to say that? Am I not going to say that? What do I want to eat? What do I want to drink? Do I have to pee? Is the dog okay?’”
All the decisions finally circle back to what’s important for Rossum: family. She was attracted to the role of Fiona for the strong sense of devotion and loyalty she feels towards her fictional family. Rossum wants to be a “mother lioness” one day, and provide the support network that perhaps she herself didn’t feel so stable in while growing up. “My parents weren’t married, so being married is something I always wanted to do. I was 20 years old; I didn’t know if that opportunity would ever present itself again to me,” divulges Rossum of her secret marriage that lasted less than two years. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, I have to jump on this bandwagon, because I don’t know if this is ever going to happen.’ And it was something that was such a fairytale in my mind, and something that I had really built up.”
Rossum elaborates, “It was definitely a rebellion of sorts, and definitely a youthful decision. Whenever I’ve gone against the instinct or the voice inside my head that said, ‘This isn’t a good idea,’ it didn’t work out well. Same with that. I knew in the back of my head when I signed that paper, ‘I probably shouldn’t do this.’ And I just thought, ‘Well, too late now.’ What am I going to do? Stand up here and be like, ‘Yeah, about this whole thing…’? I didn’t want to be that jerk.”
Rossum wants to be married again; it’s not something she’s scared of. “I see how [Macy is] an amazing father to his [off-screen] children,” she imparts, “and an amazing husband to Felicity [Huffman] who he calls ‘Flicka,’ and they’re the cutest couple ever. That’s the kind of family I want one day.” Here’s hoping there’ll be a smidge more space for the post-coital snuggle bunnies.